Phantom Minorities and Religions Denied: Muslims, Bahá’ís and International Human Rights

Nazila Ghanea

Abstract & full article at end of post

The protection of the human rights of all without discrimination on the basis inter alia of religion or belief, the protection of religious minorities, and manifestation of religion or belief in association with others – these are all well-established norms of international human rights law. Yet violations continue world-wide, and new manifestations of these age-old problems continue to multiply.[1]

All Muslim states[2] have ratified, and therefore voluntary adopted, legal commitments with regards to these obligations.[3] Nevertheless, these protections remain very much wanting in many instances with respect to both Muslim and non-Muslim minorities in Muslim states. In fact, freedom of religion or belief and religious minority rights have long been recognised as being amongst the most pressing of human rights concerns in these states.[4] Whilst the need to enhance the protection of freedom of religion or belief and religious minority rights (ForbRM rights) within Muslim states has been much written about, few publications have extended their focus to Muslim minorities in Muslim states.[5] This article seeks to establish that enhanced respect for the legal rights of non-Muslim minorities would, by default, also benefit ‘Muslim minorities’[6] within Muslim states. The contention of this article is that if sufficient progress were made regarding the respect of ForbRM rights for non-Muslims, Muslim religious minorities would see their own situations improved and claims addressed. The article will take one of the most entrenched of such cases – snapshots of the case of the Bahá’ís of Iran over the past 30 years[7] – as its main illustration of this point.

[1] The January 2009 report of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ms Asma Jahangir, notes that “Since the establishment of the mandate [on freedom of religion or belief] in 1986, the Special Rapporteur has sent more than 1,150 allegation letters and urgent appeals to a total of 130 States. … The most salient issues addressed in her recent communications related to legislation on religious issues and questions of conversion. The groups affected by these issues were mainly religious minorities and vulnerable groups.” UN Doc A/HRC/10/8, Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, 6 January 2009, paras. 22-23

[2] There are various definitions of the term ‘Muslim states’. One centres on legal systems. For example Baderin uses it to refer to states “that apply Islamic law either fully or partly as domestic law”. Another definition considers both population and membership of the OIC: “The term ‘Muslim States’ may be defined as those States where the majority of the population are Muslim and where the State is a member of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). The OIC defines itself as an inter-governmental organisation of 57 States which represents the collective voice of the Muslim world.” See: Mashood A. Baderin, International Human Rights and Islamic Law, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 2 and Nasrine Abiad, Sharia, Muslim States and International Human Rights Treaty Obligations: A Comparative Study, (London: British Institute of International and Comparative Law, 2008), pp. xix-xx. This term can be contrasted with the term “predominantly Muslims states” defined as “those where more than half of the population is Muslim”, Tad Stahnke and Robert C. Blitt, The Religion-State Relationship and the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belie: A Comparative Textual Analysis of the Constitutions of Predominantly Muslim Countries, (Washington: US Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2005), available at (last accessed May 2009). In this article I will simply take it to mean OIC member states. Some of the issues raised in this article, however, would also cover situations that may arise in Muslim communities who apply Islamic laws or norms, whether fully or partially. The example of Muslims in India may raise some legal implications, Muslims in France do not formally apply Islamic law but may uphold some of these norms socially.

[3] These obligations, however, may be subject to broad reservations undermining the ratification. For an overview and discussion see: Nasrine Abiad, Sharia, Muslim States and International Human Rights Treaty Obligations: A Comparative Study, (London: British Institute of International and Comparative Law, 2008)

[4] See: Anne Elizabeth Meyer, Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics, (Boulder: Westview Press, 4th ed., 2006); Donna E. Arzt, ‘The Treatment of Religious Dissidents Under Classical and Contemporary Islamic Law’ in John Witte and Johan van der Vyver, Eds., Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective; Religious Perspectives, (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1996); and Said Amir Arjomand, ‘Religious Human Rights and the Principle of Legal Pluralism in the Middle East’ in Johan van der Vyver and John Witte Jr, (eds) Religious Human Rights in Global Perspectives, Legal Perspectives, (The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1996)

[5] A notable exception to this is the following publication: Mohamed S. M. Eltayeb, A human rights approach to combating religious persecution: Cases from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan, (Antwerpen: Intersentia, 2001)

[6] For discussion, see below in Section I. Also see: Christopher Buck, ‘Religious Minority Rights’ in Andrew Rippin (ed) The Islamic World, (London: Routledge, 2008)

[7] 1979-2009, i.e. since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Bahá’ís in Iran have never been officially recognized as religious minorities in Iran, the land of the founding of this Faith. Periods of persecution have hounded this community throughout the religion’s 165 year history (1844 marking the beginning of the Bahá’í calendar). Whether through periods of various monarchies, constitutional revolution, Islamic revolution and regime change, they have not enjoyed either formal recognition nor enjoyed full human rights as understood in modern human rights standards.
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